Small Wonder

09.21.17

Blake Williams, Prototype, 2017, 3D video, color, sound, 63 minutes.


A SHELTER AWAY from the vast and all-consuming Toronto International Film Festival’s red-carpet parades, the Wavelengths program is TIFF’s home for all things experimental and otherwise undefinable. As of last year, the mandate of Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard had even expanded to include off-site installation works like Albert Serra’s multiscreen Singularity.

Such expansions were curtailed in 2017. Wavelengths was slightly smaller this year—as, indeed, was TIFF in toto, part of an across-the-board attempt to rein in a megafestival that had become too big to present a cogent identity. The irony is that in reducing programs uniformly instead of making selective, thoughtful cuts, the TIFF brass only made the fest marginally smaller and no more coherent, still able to screen more tennis-themed movies in one edition than any festival has a right to—though Wavelengths, even in a slightly abridged form, retains its curatorial personality as one program that puts its individual films into lively conversation with one another.

If a popular frontrunner emerged from the Wavelengths pack this year it was Texas-born, Toronto-based Blake Williams’s PROTOTYPE, subsequently acquired by Grasshopper Films for US theatrical distribution. Williams has for some time been known as a writer and active proponent of stereoscopic filmmaking, and while his previous short ventures into anaglyph 3D didn’t succeed in making me a convert, his debut feature, shot in the polarized 3D process, is an accomplishment on another plane. Without anything resembling a narrative, the film sustains its sixty-three-minute runtime by way of various movements, composed of stereoscopic images from the catastrophic Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the “stacking” of 3D screens shot from a 1959 Philco television set, rodeo footage in which the phases of movement have been broken down after the fashion of an Étienne-Jules Marey motion study, and a contemporary beachfront coda done in color video, concluding with a final piece of depth perception play, an image of a foregrounded concrete stairwell’s horizontal lines meeting those of the waves beyond.

Where PROTOTYPE’s movements flow together, those of Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous are jarring, presumably by design. The film is constructed as a triptych of similarly-sized sections—the first is set in an imagination of the colonial past in the filmmaker’s native Algeria; the second follows a wandering commune on Greece’s Kythira Island, poised somewhere between the present and a mythic past; the third is a documentary-style platform for contemporary revolutionists, including a Prosfygika castaway in contemporary Athens. The central part, oblique and distinguished by dynamic figures-in-a-landscape framings, was easily the most absorbing, though regardless of personal preference it’s hard to imagine a viewer who could value all three drastically different sections equally. Perhaps this confrontation of categories of taste is the point—and Mari is a strong enough filmmaker to convincingly employ and dispense with different styles at will—though a shapeshifter like Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, included in the previous year’s Wavelengths, goes deeper in exploring the anxiety of approach. Another film in parts, Ben Russell’s Good Luck, was the dregs of the section, a bifurcated work that begins at a large subterranean copper mine in Bor, Serbia, then moves to the compare-and-contrast setting of an open-air collective gold-panning operation in Suriname.

Where Russell’s film suggests a wariness towards its subjects that’s equal parts awed and awkward, intimacy occurs effortlessly in Mrs. Fang, the latest from prolific Chinese independent documentarian Wang Bing. A relatively to-the-point offering from a filmmaker best known for more sprawling undertakings like West of the Tracks (2003), Mrs. Fang’s runtime is determined by its subject, the film being essentially a document of a days-long vigil at the deathbed of a woman in the final stages of dementia: When she ends, it does too. Scenes of the woman’s family speculating on minute changes in her stiffening body language and close-ups in which her staring eyes fill with tears are intercut with nocturnal open-air ones of relations out night fishing with an electrified dip net. The sharp back-and-forth lateral movement between human woe and the natural world counterpoises two variations on waiting, also working somewhat in the tradition of Tang Dynasty poetry, and watching Wang’s emotional, moral, and pictorial intelligence at work from moment to moment elevates Mrs. Fang above mere morbidity.

Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 177 minutes.


Wang’s movie is in conversation with another film that uses close-ups even more exclusively, Caniba, a portrait of sorts of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man whose butchery of a Dutch woman while both were foreign exchange students in Paris in 1981 earned him a tribute in the Rolling Stones song “Too Much Blood.” (“You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head / Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece.”) Codirectors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are best known for their 2012 nautical GoPro epic Leviathan, a thrilling film and an unrepeatable stunt, a fact they have happily understood. Here they’ve adapted an entirely new, pared-down, observant style to their sedentary subjects, filling the frame with the aging, mottled flesh of Sagawa, now suffering near-paralysis, and his caretaker brother, letting the focus drift in such a fashion as to make them seem almost incorporeal. Sparse archival footage includes glimpses of the Sagawa brothers’ privileged youths—about as much as the film offers in the way of explaining how Issei escaped serious prison time. Among other things Caniba is a study in pampered self-satisfaction, the undying compulsion toward sibling rivalry, and the invidious power of audio-visual suggestion—walk-outs abounded at my screening, though much of the worst here is willfully obscured.

Two other films that beg pairing are Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, both unorthodox musicals, though Pinho’s film contains just one old-fashioned production number. Dumont’s movie, based on texts by Charles Peguy, begins with eight-year-old dynamo Lise Leplat Prudhomme as young Joan, and follows her into her teenaged years, through her divine vision of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her final departure from Lorraine en route to martial glory. Largely limited to the countryside where Joan tends her flock and delivered in song, the Jeannette bears a clear debt to Straub and Huillet’s Moses und Aron (1973), though it’s distinguished by a heavy metal-inflected score by French electronic musician Igorrr. The idea, one supposes, is to draw an analogy between religious ecstasy and the transports of headbanging, though Dumont shows even less affinity for thrash than he does for medieval Christianity. Has there’s ever been a filmmaker so single-mindedly preoccupied with the matter of faith who has so thoroughly failed to evince any reason for that preoccupation beyond fetishization of its more aberrant manifestations? While the formerly somber Dumont’s turn to the wacky since 2014’s miniseries L’il Quinquin has to some marked a creative rebirth, to these eyes it’s only made more glaring an essential absence in his work.

There is something more to recommend of The Nothing Factory, set during the lassitude of a labor dispute at an elevator factory outside of Lisbon. It at least tosses off a lot of ideas, most of these regarding labor in a post-work society, during its three-plus hour runtime—though these ideas seem to decorate the film’s surface rather than act as a part of its superstructure. While Pinho’s film practically demands—and has received—consideration as a major work by virtue of its subject matter and daunting length, it works more in passages than as a sustained whole, and I doubt it will have anything like the same longevity in my mind as several short works at Wavelengths. Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux’s little piss-take Division Movement to Vungtau, for example, provided sick laughs in a program not overloaded with humor, a series of iris effects on archival footage of US troops in Vietnam, to which has been added a cast of anthropomorphic CGI fruit capering on the fringes of the image.

Further highlights include Rawane Nassif’s ingeniously framed Turtles Are Always Home, shot among the ersatz Venetian canals of Doha’s “Quanat Quartier,” which finds countless fresh variations on the theme of photographic and architectural illusionism in the course of twelve minutes. Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant, which moves between flower-bedecked fields and the artificial landscape of circuit boards, is a work of hard clarity of intention and thrilling cadence, and there’s something admirable in the setup-punchline simplicity of Brown and Clear, whose title refers most explicitly to the two flavors of liquor served at a bar in director Kevin Jerome Everson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Finally, there was a Harvard Film Archive restoration of the late Framington, Massachusetts–based filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson’s 1976 Pixillation. I’ve been moved by every Robertson piece I’ve ever seen, and this prismatic, wind-tossed self-portrait was no exception. It’s a model in conveying maximum emotion with a paucity of means, in a program that continues to distinguish itself with diminished resources.

Nick Pinkerton

The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 7 through 17.

Eight Ball

09.18.17

Hal Ashby, 8 Million Ways to Die, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.


IF YOU SAW 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) via the movie equivalent to Downbeat Magazine’s Blindfold Test—sans credits, prior knowledge, or preconceived context—it could seem like a film that had come unstuck in time. Draping itself in the moody trappings of neo-noir action-romance, it boasts minimal action and its romantic pièce de résistance features a drunken failed seduction that culminates with the femme fatale vomiting down the hero’s pants. Its slouching posture suggests an affinity for Robert Altman’s loser-reverie The Long Goodbye (1973), updated with all the cold accoutrements of mid-’80s Hollywood power-tripping: would-be big-shots in louche suits, peroxided women in slinky dresses and puffed-out hair, with ample cocaine to socially lubricate all the aspirational-delusional gears betwixt and between.

Five examples of the movie’s commitment to a candid, non-rote view of the greater LA basin: the long opening helicopter shot under the credits, through uninviting smog and over ugly-beautiful freeways at sunset, touching down on a police raid that takes a shortcut through Beth Israel Cemetery. There’s a precarious Malibu hillside house with a trolley, serving as a private casino/brothel; the PoBoys supermarket in Compton, where dope is stashed in decorative fireplace logs; the proud villain’s new home, in the process of being renovated as an homage to Gaudi (he can’t shut up about it). And the big standoff is in an empty Long Beach warehouse, a scene whose rising absurdity floats through the plot holes and comes out on the other side of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ben Wheatley’s recent Free Fire—a clusterfuck of miscalculations and missed cues instead of a composed or slap-shtick bloodbath.

The pungent acting of Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette generates a steady pressure against the pop-thriller form: 8 Million Ways to Die’s commercial intentions take a backseat to a lifelike undertow of cruddy, hemmed-in despair and self-abnegating laceration. Breaking down the hoary dynamic of private cop entangled with upmarket hooker-working-her-way-to-madam, the two dive into their parts with the fortitude of long-distance drunks competing in a blackout triathlon. Bridges’s sweaty armpits and demeanor are not some proto-Lebowski window dressing; like the offhand loathing in Arquette’s voice and glare, they’re as lived-in as dirty laundry.

Through Andy Garcia’s fledgling drug kingpin Angel Maldanado, you’d pick up the lineage of Scarface and Miami Vice. (You might not be surprised to learn Oliver Stone wrote the first draft of 8 Million Ways before he tackled Scarface.) The romantic-triangle offense also recalls the stylish modalities of Against All Odds (1983, another Jeff Bridges vehicle). But precisely none of this squares with the movie’s stream of wormy, digressive interludes; weird background activities; and its lowdown sympathy for embittered attitudes, terrible decision-making, and destructive/defensive tendencies. Playing like an extended flashback to the freestyle movies of the ’70s, 8 Million Ways starts to feel less like a crime story than a brutal, thinly veiled Hollywood parable.

Bridges and Arquette’s characters could as easily be a luckless bottom-rung screenwriter and a performer struggling to break out of some exploitation-ghetto. Garcia’s sharky dealer has the patter of up-and-coming CAA agent, backstabbing manager, or pushy, raging-ego producer down pat. Wiry and overbearing, pouring the charm on like a bottle of Paco Rabanne, Garcia bridges the voracious attention-snorting of Al Pacino’s Scarface and the high-strung/strung-out manner Michael Imperioli would bring to The Sopranos (1999–2007). Beyond the candied-cocaine window-dressing, Maldanado is the distillation of every hard-nosed showbiz hustler—his ethnicity is the only thing separating him from the other ponytailed high rollers in the Industry.

It’s not a huge leap from here to surmise that the director was a.) no run-of-the-mill hack; b.) had a major ax to grind with the production’s moneymen; and c.) his shoot was troubled and interfered with from preproduction through to the bitter end. 8 Million Ways to Die could almost be Exhibit A—or Patient Zero—in the annals of how the auteurs of the ’70s were blindsided in the ’80s by the new deal-making, numbers-crunching players in the industry. No real surprise then that the director turns out to be Hal Ashby, only a few years after the peak of his career (at least commercially) with Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). Or that this will be his final picture: Many people (including Arquette, in an interview on the 8 Million Ways disc) believe the toll it took killed him. (I don’t know whether Hollywood can be directly linked to pancreatic cancer, but I wouldn’t rule it out.)

The sad joke here is how much company Ashby had: The title of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985) is readily confused with Ashby’s project, and while Friedkin adapted to the new regime better—more efficiently—than many, he was likewise slipping down the pecking order. By then, Altman was even deeper in movie purgatory (if soon to rebound), Sam Peckinpah was already dead after an even more ignominious last run, Arthur Penn was utterly washed-up, etc. If the post–New Hollywood wave of high-concept, exhaustively engineered features had a byword, it was the prefix “Over-”: over-the-top, overbearing, overdetermined.

The conventional wisdom on 8 Million Ways is that it represents Ashby’s ultimate defeat by the System, but by the Southern California light of its antihero paradigm (falling apart in rattrap attire), it sabotages the winners’ blueprint. Riding the quixotic train that ran from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (and their divergent film adaptations by John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Altman) on through to Ross MacDonald, Warren Zevon, and Cutter’s Way right into a brick wall, Ashby’s film is his Big Kiss-Off to the whole rotten business. It cries out for Zevon’s “Ain’t That Pretty at All” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” on the soundtrack in place of James Newton Howard’s incongruous synthesized score (every fat, satisfied note of which evokes the exact movie Ashby didn’t make).

Maybe if the execs hadn’t taken the final cut away from Ashby he could have sculpted the footage into something like a beautifully dissociated, bifurcated seesaw between an alcoholic’s grievous miscalculations and his assessment looking back from the sanctuary of Alcoholics Anonymous. As it stands, it’s still a remarkable, appropriately messy slice of spiritual autobiography, seldom less than alive and surprising (how many movie gangsters have kept a full snocone bar in their trunk?). It makes a “hip” prestige saga like The Player look tidy, soft, and terminally “on message.” There were eight million ways to get high in the ’80s: If certain superstars (or executives) used to have their personal assistants blow coke up their asses with a straw, then Ashby’s film is a fitting memorial to the ones who found themselves on the wrong end of those straws.

Howard Hampton

Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Chantal Akerman, Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping), 1986, color, sound, 96 minutes.


THE ROSTER LIVES UP TO ITS TITLE: “The Whole World Sings: International Musicals.” I wish I could spend a week at the Quad seeing all thirteen features in a series that was organized by the theater’s programmers in collaboration with Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri. Whether bittersweet, semitragic, joyous, or somewhat deranged, almost every one of these films will lift your spirits as you enter a fall season that looks to be as depressing—I’m not referring only to culture—as this summer was.

Screening in a new digital restoration, Chantal Akerman’s 1986 Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping) is a study in emotional surfeit within a minimalist-pop aesthetic. The set is a tiny shopping mall that contains a dress shop, a bar, a hair salon, and the exterior of a movie theater. It’s not clothes, jus d’orange, or movies that are on display, but the people who work here and whose entanglements and desires are, with one exception, shared, celebrated, and mourned in song and dance. The film’s subject is romantic love—found, lost, and desired. Marc Hérouet’s score is bouncy although a bit repetitive, necessary grounding for Akerman’s wildly associative lyrics, which make me simultaneously laugh and cry from first to last.

The ensemble cast is enchantingly human—better than being great singers or dancers—and Delphine Seyrig, in her last major role, is much more than that. Seyrig plays Mrs. Schwarz, the proprietor—with her husband—of the dress store. Like Jeanne Dielman, the other great character she and Akerman created together in the eponymous film, Mrs. Schwarz suffered in World War II: Specifically, like Akerman’s mother, she is a Holocaust survivor. But unlike Dielman, Mrs. Schwarz has a surpassingly brave, dazzling smile, all the more haunting because of the vulnerability just below the surface.

No one in the gossipy shopping mall knows that the American who rescued Mrs. Schwarz after the war has reappeared. They love each other still, but it’s impossible; their romance would mean the breakup of their marriages. Seyrig can’t really sing but with her husky, cut-velvet voice she can talk her way through the song that introduces the soliloquy at the heart of Golden Eighties, offered as comfort to the young woman just jilted by the Schwarz’s confused son and, of course, to herself. “Love never means nothing. Love is never lost / All the love and dreams that ever were live on somewhere / That’s the way it must be / If not there will be another horror and this time no one will be spared. But that won’t happen.”

Golden Eighties owes something to Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, just as Umbrellas owes something to Jean Renoir’s 1955 French Cancan. Both are in “The Whole World Sings,” which is heavy on French films and also includes Marc Allegret’s Zouzou (1934), a vehicle for Josephine Baker at the height of her talents; René Clair’s Le Million (1931), made just a year or two after sound came to European cinema, and as comically inventive in its use of this new technology as only Clair, who made avant-garde films in the 1920s could be; Alain Resnais’s farcical Same Old Song (1997), which opens with the Nazi high command hightailing it out of Paris to the sound of Édith Piaf; and Euzhan Palcy’s Siméon (1992), her follow-up to A Dry White Season (1989), long out of circulation in the US and screening in a new 4K restoration.

Seijun Suzuki, Princess Raccoon, 2005, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.


The eclectic inventory continues. Crossdressing is the comedy springboard for Han Hsiang Li’s Hong Kong–produced The Love Eternal (1963) and Reinhold Schünzel’s 1933 Victor and Victoria. (The latter, a final defiant flourish of Weimar culture, was remade by Blake Edwards in 1982 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews.) A prime example of Egyptian melodrama, Youssef Chahine’s 1997 Destiny is a Palme d’Or winner and less lugubrious than most of the director’s nonmusical films, while Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) is a foundational work of modern Indian cinema and necessary history for Bollywood fans. In a series not lacking in surrealist fantasy, Princess Raccoon (2005), the final film by the wild, shapeshifting Japanese B-movie director Seijun Suzuki, is the most liberatingly unhinged of them all.

The series’ political problem-child might be Marcel Camus’s much-celebrated Black Orpheus (1959). In 2009, a few months after Obama’s inauguration, Peter Bradshaw, film critic at The Guardian, wrote a piece about Black Orpheus in which he quotes at length from Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995). Obama recalled that around 1980 he took his mother to a revival of Black Orpheus, which she had gone to when she was sixteen (her first foreign movie), and which she thought was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

He wrote:

We took a cab to the revival theatre where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The storyline was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during carnival, in Technicolor splendor. Set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie I decided I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus, 1959, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.


Bradshaw goes on to write that although he thought Obama was “too tough” on Black Orpheus,

[T]his passage exposed, more dramatically than anything has in a very long while, the fact that critical perceptions are governed by class, by background and by race. I saw Black Orpheus as a white man, a white liberal. Of course I did. The assumption of progressive good faith on race, and the indulgence of potential condescension or even stereotyping in an old movie is something that a white liberal can afford, and as far as the arts and culture are concerned in the prosperous west, white liberals are in the ascendant. But Barack Obama responded to the film quite differently. He responded with impatience, with scepticism and with pain; he saw no reason for black men and women to be objectified—and now, as the president of the United States, he is the subject, the most important subject in the world.

I must add that when I saw first saw Black Orpheus in the early 1960s, I was thrilled by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Latin dance-beat score, but I was totally creeped out by the exoticizing of people of color. I can’t imagine that my experience of the film will change when I see it this time around at the Quad.

Amy Taubin

“The Whole World Sings” plays through Thursday, September 21 at the Quad in New York.

By the Book

09.13.17

Frederick Wiseman, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 197 minutes.


ONE OF THE MYSTERIES OF Ex Libris: New York Public Library is how a movie almost entirely consisting of people sitting around talking on library grounds manages to feel urgent and invigorating.

The film is the latest of the institutional studies that Frederick Wiseman has been producing for the half-century since Titicut Follies (1967), set in the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. Wiseman’s project is among the most ambitious ever undertaken in nonfiction cinema, a nearly comprehensive chronicling of (mostly) American institutions, and his rigor and intelligence are so understated, so routine, that it’s tempting to take the eighty-seven-year-old filmmaker for granted. Where Ken Burns has been telling the American story through historical/archival means, Wiseman does so as a live witness, always using the same methodology: Gain inside access, shoot acres of footage, and then, in the editing booth, give shape to what Wiseman has learned about his subject through the entire observational process. The finished products are often sprawling—Ex Libris is three-and-a-quarter hours long, though fairly flies by—and filled with the sort of organizational minutiae that most other documentarians would trim if they bothered to record them in the first place. Faced with the sort of conference-room shop talk that makes most people glaze over, Wiseman pricks up his ears. The last person heard from in the film is the British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal, reading from his book The White Road: Journey into an Obsession, as he recites a passage that might serve as Wiseman’s maxim: “Process is not to be skated over.”

Ex Libris doesn’t skate. The film was shot in and around properties belonging to the New York Public Library system, which services Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. While returning most frequently to the Beaux Arts Main Branch on Bryant Square, he also circulates through the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, a Chinatown branch, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, going as far afield as Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. Some of its subjects are celebrities, speaking at public events: Richard Dawkins, Elvis Costello, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many others are not: patrons at various library functions or rank-and-file staffers giving tours of their individual domains (resources like the century-old Picture Collection or the archival Print Collection).

Ex Libris was shot in fall 2015, its editing completed during a period of political lunacy. This is felt in the final product, as when Costello describes his song “Tramp the Dirt Down” as a response to Margaret Thatcher and “what she let loose in the country,” summarized as “the desire to stamp on your fellow countryman.” What his film offers, by contrast, is a vision of extraordinary warmth and fellow feeling, deeply respectful of the intelligence that it allows its dozens of subjects the opportunity to display. (The lone exception is a US Border Patrol agent seen speaking haltingly at a job fair in the Bronx.) There is a quiet kind of wonderment in his latest—at the variety of modes of human expression, at the volume of the records of that expression. Wiseman has never shied away from critiquing the institutions that he puts under the scrutiny of his deadpan, observational lens, but this is counterbalanced by his clear belief in the potential of the individual—in the course of presenting things as they are, he offers a sense of things as they might be.

The glimmers of Utopia in Ex Libris make the present beleaguered state of the Republic keenly felt, but to harp on the movie’s “new, sad relevance in the Age of Trump” or some other such piece of hoary hackspeak, however, would be to ignore the degree to which Wiseman positions the NYPL facilities as not only repositories of world culture but as stages for the continuation of a floating conversation on the promises and pitfalls of American civilization ongoing since 1776. Among the film’s many accomplishments is its ability to reveal the vitality of dusty documents, be it Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut print of a rhinoceros; Love in the Time of Cholera, discussed by a senior reading group through the filter of life experience; or foundational texts of American civic thought. One scene, in which a sign-language interpreter for theatrical production demonstrates her craft by signing two differently pitched readings of the preamble to the US Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the most moving screen staging of an American political document since Charles Laughton read the Gettysburg Address in Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

Frederick Wiseman, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 197 minutes.


An extraordinary plethora of topics are discussed in Ex Libris, but two return with a regularity that belies how thoughtfully structured Wiseman’s deceptively ambling movie in fact is: slavery and freedom. Library trustees listen to a presentation by a representative of the Schomburg Center on research pertaining to Phillis Wheatley, the first published female African-American poet, who cites a courteous correspondence to Wheatley from General George Washington. It’s all very touching, though when the wealthy trustees meet for a group photo on the library steps it’s impossible to ignore that they are overwhelmingly white, while the myriad homeless who drift through the city’s libraries are not. Elsewhere, Coates draws parallels between American slavery and European serfdom. At the Macomb’s Bridge Library way uptown, there is a lively discussion of a McGraw-Hill textbook graphic in which a map of immigration patterns refers to African slaves as “workers.” A lecturer at Greenwich Village’s Jefferson Market Library—one of the most beautiful buildings in New York—dissertates on the nineteenth-century writings of social theorist George Fitzhugh, whose Slaves Without Masters expounded the superiority of antebellum southern life to that of industrial capitalism, before bringing in a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “The free society is not and will not be a failure.”

The sense of the imperative in Lincoln’s statement runs throughout Ex Libris. As Wiseman suggests, the library is an essential bulwark in that mission to maintain and perfect a free society. The film is a celebration of every variety of learning, from the pedagogical to the pleasure of solitary reading. In one lovely scene, we see the recording of an audiobook of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, in which Wiseman briefly cuts away from the voice actor to the sound editor recording his performance, catching her just as the color of the light reflecting onto her face from her desktop computer changes—a literal vision of illumination.

Wiseman’s self-appointed mission to parse the fine print of society has always seemed to me a heroic act, insofar as art can be described as “heroic.” The idea that the world has reached its present state due to the machinations of conspiratorial shadow governments has gained a great deal of traction among Americans of all political inclinations. I have always thought it likely that the truth was more mundane and sadder—that all the information is in plain sight, but that very few want to be bothered with it. Wiseman’s films take that trouble, and in doing so provide a reminder to vigilance. The least of them are always of interest, and the greatest—in which company Ex Libris belongs—are nothing short of emancipatory.

Nick Pinkerton

Ex Libris: New York Public Library runs Wednesday, September 13 through Tuesday, September 26 at Film Forum in New York.

Tsai Ming-Liang, The River, 1997, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.


TSAI MING-LIANG is one of the great charters of human loneliness. This month’s retrospective at the Kino Arsenal in Berlin allows you to consider Tsai’s cinema in its entirety (excluding his shorts and television features). You can watch the city of Taipei through the final decade of the twentieth century and to the present, as it begins to resemble the scripted expectations of a twenty-first century metropolis, or the development of his small ensemble of players, notably Lee Kang-sheng, the handsome and mysterious leading man Tsai discovered working in a video-game arcade, and has cast in every one of his features.

Presiding above all this are Tsai’s consistent motifs. There’s loneliness, sure, but loneliness here is always interwoven with real estate—not a typical theme for an auteur, but Tsai makes it his own by elevating his enclosed spaces—often abandoned, or their ownership fraught—to the level of costars. Vive l’amour (1994) tracks the peregrinations of three people who, unbeknownst to one another, are illegally squatting in the same massive two-story luxury apartment in Taipei that the agent can’t manage to sell. The Hole (1998) takes place around a hole drilled into the floor of an apartment that never gets repaired, and thus connects the two, tenants. Stray Dogs (2013), his most recent feature, focuses on a homeless family in Taipei; the patriarch takes a low-paying day job holding up a sign at an intersection advertising a new luxury condo development.

Often Tsai’s loneliness is linked to a longing for another place entirely, one that can only be distantly imagined. In What Time Is It There? (2001), a watch salesman falls in love with a young woman who insists on buying his own personal watch for her move to Paris. He knows he’ll never see her again, and immersed in his fantasy, he changes all his watches to Paris time and spends his days viewing a random French DVD he bought, Truffaut’s 400 Blows. This incessant probing of the notion of place, of home, could only come from someone who, like Tsai, is an outsider by choice, who moved to Taiwan from his native Malaysia when he was in his early twenties to study and never returned.

Tsai announced himself as a great sensualist in his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), depicting teenage outcasts adrift in a rain-drenched subtropical nightscape. Cockroaches, flooded floors, disapproving parents, petty juvenile criminals making their way through the arcades and night-markets while making their first fumblings toward romance—it’s a quintessential portrait of working-class Taipei, every moment suffused with the constant and uncategorizable lust of urban street life. Carnal life-force surfaces more bluntly in films like The Wayward Cloud (2005), in which Lee plays a porn actor, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), where a sex tourist unsuccessfully attempts to pick up men during the final screening at a bankrupt cinema. Tsai’s films could be called queer, though they lack the impetus toward an explicit politics; Tsai sensitively intuits that desire is always political, and so it requires little more than to be portrayed. He does not force his characters to articulate their often bizarre, strained relations to one another. The typical Tsai Ming-Liang character couldn’t articulate such thoughts anyway, not because they are dumb, but because they are trapped in a state of profound interiority. Lost in an existential malaise, Tsai’s people can have no real interests; these surroundings they haunt, and that are such a key component of his films, are very nearly produced by the characters from that malaise, externalizations of that distraught interiority.

So often, our experiences with the artists we love are shaped by our first encounter with their work. Mine was Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Here, in the final night of this old Taipei cinema, the film projected on the screen is a Taiwanese kung-fu classic, Dragon Inn (1967). Among the tiny audience are two of Dragon Inn’s original actors, Jun Shih and Miao Tien. A woman noisily eats peanuts. A horny Japanese tourist moves from seat to seat, cruising the male patrons, as well as the projectionist, played by the ever-elusive Lee. The projectionist is also sought after by the box-office manager, a crippled woman who has made him a steamed bun as a parting gift; as the film plays, she is seen intermittently limping through the halls and stairways with her wrapped bun, searching, unable to find him. Not much happens. Not much needs to happen. And yet every moment seems necessary. It is this aspect that makes Tsai Ming-Liang’s films something more than cinema, more akin to poetry. In the narrowness of these enclosed spaces, the world becomes so much bigger.

Travis Jeppesen

“Anatomy of loneliness — The Films of Tsai Ming-Liang” runs through the month of September at the Kino Arsenal in Berlin.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).


A WORLD WHERE TWIN PEAKS is the center is horrifying and moral because there is, obviously, no God. There’s no sense of God, no shadow or presence. There’s not even a church, astounding for a town with a diner, a roadhouse, a hospital, woods, waters. There is a church in the unincorporated community of Twin Peaks, California. There are three churches of the Mormon kind by the foot of the Twin Peaks range in Utah. A work so wholly American, American as Underworld, as A Face in the Crowd, and yet not Christian exists nowhere else. But in Twin Peaks, Washington, in lieu of a creator, there is a dreamer and we don’t know who.

The first time around (1990–91) we wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer and David Lynch thought knowing would kill the show. Overruled by the network, he lost interest, left things to his cocreator, Mark Frost, and the show faltered, collapsed; or else the show couldn’t go on when the showman had left. This is Lynch’s second chance—to climb the dread heights, as John “Scottie” Ferguson does in Vertigo (1958). Cooper’s chance, too. MacLachlan’s MacLachlanaissance is in doubt, since between the dream-locked Cooper, the absent Dougie, and the evil-incarnate Mr. C, he has yet to play human, a writing choice that begins to seem like an excuse for the actor. He once played a man becoming more than that, the youthful quester, Paul Atreides, in Lynch’s ill-fated, fantastic, misunderstanding 1984 adaptation of Dune. Lynch had him imbibe what’s called “the water of life” and, rather than “drink full and descend,” ascend to being a god, whereas in the novel he’s only playing at godhood. (Imagine if Francis Ford Coppola, adapting Heart of Darkness for the cinema, had turned Kurtz into a literal deity and cast Paul Newman. The horror, etc.) Though Lynch retracted his authorship of the film after the studio made sense-destroying edits, it’s unclear that, had he been given the control he wanted, it would have been what we could honestly call great.

When I said the dreamer could be us, it was the simplest and not the best solve; I think the question should be answerable, not answered. “One does not offer an ethics to God,” says Simone de Beauvoir in her Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), and so “far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth, because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements.” (We can add “creative” before license, if we like.) Together, men bear “the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of [man] himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories.”

And when the show ends, if you can believe it, this Sunday, we’ll want a sense that the dream of the show is not over, even we are not to see, for real this time, another new minute. I pray not, since Twin Peaks: The Eternal Return would be too ungodly. In the picture as it fades there should be a dreamer who is like us, made in our image as gods always are, in my god-averse view, but not us. A Godardian “perfect image,” like I said. Afterimage, maybe. Face without an “I.”

Cooper, a dreamer, cannot be the dreamer. An early episode in the original Twin Peaks was called “Cooper’s Dreams,” not “Cooper’s Dream” (or even “Cooper Dreams”). In episode sixteen of The Return, having put a fork in the socket and in Dougie, the hero awakes from both his medically induced coma and his once-interminable limbo. “You are awake,” says Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel), aka The Man from Another Place. “One hundred per cent,” says Cooper. Dale Cooper. Special Agent Dale Cooper. “Finally,” says Gerard.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Phillip Gerard (Al Strobel).


What proceeds is as pure and fun an action sequence as any in a Bond movie (and I’ve seen every Bond movie), set—finally!—to the Twin Peaks theme. He’s starving. He’s talking, all determination and cheer. He borrows a gun from his boss (he knows the exact make and model, which says he’s been watching, as in sleep paralysis, from inside Dougie) and tells the Mitchum Brothers to get the private jet ready. “What about the FBI?” says Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray), because the FBI is looking for Mr. Jones. Cooper turns, a familiar turn. “I am the FBI.” He’s suave, driving the white Beemer, another man’s wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), looking at him with lust and adoration. Leaving wife and kid tearful at the casino, he promises that “Dougie… I will be back.” (It’ll be a figure named Dougie but, for Janey-E’s sake, more like Cooper, made with a strand of his hair and a “seed” of some kind, conjured by Gerard.)

As for the other one, the bad one, he doesn’t dream ever, permitting the notion that what we see is his dream—but no, Mr. C cannot be the dreamer. Since minute one he’s been too in control. Dreams don’t tend to be plotted, lack beginnings or endings; they begin in darkness and they’re over when you stop remembering, or wake. He does create—tulpas, like Dougie. He decreates his son, duh, Richard Horne (Eamon Farr), electrocuting him on a rock, and the son’s disappearance indicates he too was/is a tulpa, or half-tulpa. The one man he can’t control is Phillip Jeffries, who reappears at the old convenience store in voice only, and it would be apt for David Bowie to play the dreamer, to have, perhaps, an alter ego named Judy, and therefore to hold the answers two questions—who’s Judy and who’s the dreamer — in one hand. However, if Judy is to be like Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, played by Judy Garland, she should have once been a girl.

Kim Novak is Judy Barton in Vertigo, and Judy, mistress to the rich Mr. Elster, goes blonde and waspy to impersonate and frame as a suicide his wife, Madeleine. An early episode of the original Twin Peaks has Laura’s cousin, named Maddy or Madeleine after Novak, played like Laura by Sheryl Lee, put on a blonde wig to play the dead girl’s ghost. Syllogistically, casting aside, this means Judy is Madeleine and Madeleine is not Laura. Some fans ignore this and think Judy is Laura, pointing to the shot of a monkey saying “Judy,” followed by a shot of dead Laura, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). But Judy has a sister, says Jeffries in the same film, and “part of her” is there in Argentina. Laura does not have a sister, far as we know. (Can a tulpa be considered a sister?)

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn).


Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) had a half-sister, Donna Hayward, played on Twin Peaks by Lara Flynn Boyle and unreturned here. Norma (Peggy Lipton) had a sister who was played by Annie (Heather Graham) and ditto. I suppose when Cooper asked how’s Annie the answer could have been “chilling in Buenos Aires” but it’s impossible to think of Norma as a Judy. Joan Chen, writing in character as Josie Packard to David Lynch, asking, in vain, to be on The Return, said that she often thinks of her “twin sister, Judy.” A writer on Fire Walk with Me said ages ago that Judy was, at one point, meant to be Josie’s twin, and at least one fan is convinced that Judy is Josie, while another on the same fansite is convinced, via the Bible and numerology, that Judy is Naido (Nae Yuuki). On the Twin Peaks Reddit I read that Judy is both Josie’s sis and Naido, but since Nae is very apparently Japanese and Chen is very apparently Chinese, this development would be racist, blind, and dumb. Diane (Laura Dern), we found out in part fourteen, is half-sisters with none other than Janey-E, their lives another soap-operatic double aria in this devil’s puzzle of a magnificent script.

But the Diane we have seen is not the Diane we never knew. She’s already been a double agent, working with the task force on the Blue Rose case and simultaneously texting info to Mr. C, but the latest text reveals she’s a double, a tulpa. Mr. C texts “ALL” preceded by a smiling emoticon, and the smile triggers her, as in literally triggers, weaponizes. Twenty-five years ago, on the night she doesn’t talk about, she tells Gordon, with Albert and Tammy listening, Cooper showed up at her house. He kissed her, and it didn’t feel like a kiss. He smiled, horribly. He raped her. Dern is incredible: What could be truer than the dreamy, teenage way she says “he kissed me” and then, breathiness curling and solidifying into disgust with the processive control of a ballet dancer’s developpé, says “something went wrong.”

Cooper was, then, definitively, bad at the time Richard was conceived with Audrey, meaning either that Audrey was a tulpa and tulpas can reproduce, which is unlikely but so are a lot of things before they occur; or that Audrey was raped and the dissociation a rape produces came to stick. Finally at the roadhouse, at the end of this sixteenth hour, she dances the dance we remember and we’re ensorcelled into grinning at the sight. But just when she seems like herself, she is interrupted by yet another barfight over someone’s wife and stops, runs to Charlie, screams get me out of here and poof, appears elsewhere, in a white room, makeupless in a mirror, as in a psych ward. I have already expressed my total disdain for rape—let alone rape by a partner, lover, friend, or acquaintance, a crime about as rare as petty theft—as a plot device granting a male protagonist power over the rest of a victim’s life and I refuse to say more about it as a reason for a girl to go mad.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 16. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).


The matrilineal nature of madness, more accurate to my paradigm, is supposed in Vertigo and echoed in Twin Peaks. Other fans, in a theory I enjoy, say that the girl asleep when the Woodsmen come, into whose mouth the tumescent insect crawls, must be the dreamer; that is to say, some percentage of her never woke up. More than any of the other female characters, the girl looks like Mädchen Amick, enough so to have been her mother, making Becky (Amanda Seyfried) her granddaughter and analogous to the character of Madeleine Elster, with the insane, suiciding grandmother of lore, in Vertigo. But that’s perhaps my superficial reading and the fans who think the dreamer is Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), the desolated would-be matriarch who alone is the right age to be that girl as a woman if she’s still alive, are onto something more. She’s been nuts as long as we’ve known her. She’s only moreso. She has a sister, one we’ve never seen: Beth Ferguson, mother of Maddy, though again if we are following the plot of Vertigo this would make Maddy the Judy. Maybe I just want Sarah to be the dreamer because she is the character in Twin Peaks I most hope is somehow immortal.

Zabriskie had the greatest scene of the show so far, or so I said, in part twelve; she had a greater one in part fourteen, when Sarah goes drinking alone at an unfamiliar dive bar. Harassed by a man in a TRUCK YOU T-shirt (where’s Richard with Billy’s truck when you need him?) who accuses her of “looking like one of them bulldykes” (he may be excused for not knowing what a bulldyke looks like, there being a total of no lesbians in Twin Peaks), she takes on an attitudinal freeze and hiss, becoming precisely as touchable as nitrous oxide. He says he’ll eat her cunt. She says she’ll eat him. Removing her face like a paper moon from a collage of the galaxy, she emits the voice of a Woodswoman, saying do you really want to fuck with me, and a hand appears, and something bites, so that the next thing anyone sees he’s dead on the floor with a missing jugular. A half-second. A return to her human form. Then a scream which, in Zabriskie’s throat, has wit. I laughed the first, second, third time I watched it. The bar owner approaches her with suspicion and she plays helpless, stricken, then drops her voice to a mere chill and says: “Yeah. It’s a mystery.” Her alloy of the deadpan and sangfroid supercedes even that of Diane, and I wonder whether tulpas can have this much self-possession, congenitally; no other tulpa has gone off her head of her own volition.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 14. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie).


Few other options are left for the dreamer’s identity. Gordon Cole (David Lynch), whose name is the last thing Cooper-as-Dougie hears, the final trigger, cannot be him either. You wouldn’t say to the dreamer, as Monica Bellucci does to Gordon Cole, that “we are like the dreamer.” If we’re not the dreamer and the characters aren’t like us, who are they like? Do we want to know what we’re like? Maybe it’s someone we’ve never seen. The original, human Diane, the invisible presence the old Cooper was always addressing, perhaps. Or someone we mysteriously can’t see, on the verge of disappearing, an old authority figure in the hospital, sick, someone people are always asking to see and can’t—the actor unavailable, retired. Sheriff Harry S. Truman, that is. Horrible to think we’re just in Truman’s show!

Go back to Vertigo, Lynch’s favorite. I had forgotten whether it ended with a fate—and it did, a punishment for interfering with fate. But the plot is set into motion by cynical people, not “forces.” There is no “strange power” at work. People on The Return die of common causes, like being shot, but not for very good reasons: Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hutch are riddled to bits by, of all people, an accountant in an act of mutual road rage. Steven (Caleb Landry Jones), in the fourteenth hour, was heard to die by his own handgun, startled, like Judy Barton atop the belltower, erroneously at the approach of a stranger. People also die in what are deemed paranormal or “not natural” ways, and these autopsy-defying deaths seem yet less “senseless,” less amoral than the picayune, indubitable ones. Morality, said de Beauvoir after Kierkegaard, is no more relevant than language is to nature, and is perhaps supranatural; it’s easy to make the slip to supernatural, then to sense good and evil as something no longer above but beyond us, something out there. Lynch is a true believer that some things can’t be explained. Yet Scottie, the detective in Vertigo, believed in the inexplicable too for a time, and was institutionalized, and when he solved the case and beat his agoraphobia, almost in one breath, it was because he saw, like Paul in Dune, that “fear is the mind-killer.” I suspect the best reason not to say who killed Laura was that people already knew, only they were afraid to think it.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s previous recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10
Episodes 11 & 12
Episodes 13, 14, & 15

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.